After three previous remands - and $3 million in costs - fourth sentencing stands
POSTED: 10:36 AM PST November 27, 2015
UPDATED: 11:49 AM PST November 28, 2015
Nearly 30 years after the brutal 1987 slaying of a Terrebonne couple – and after court costs topping $3 million – the Oregon Supreme Court on Friday rejected convicted killer Randy Lee Guzek’s appeal of his fourth death sentence, affirming that penalty for the first time and refusing to remand the case for a fifth sentencing trial in Bend.
Guzek was 18 at the time of the brutal slayings of Rod and Lois Houser and was convicted of two counts of aggravated murder in 1988. The Oregon Supreme Court affirmed those convictions in 1990, but three times prior had ordered new penalty-phase trials under the automatic reviews required in the state court and death penalty process.
Two other men involved in the shooting and stabbing deaths, Mark Wilson and David Cathey, received life sentences after testifying against Guzek, who is one of 36 people on Oregon's death Row. The state hasn't executed anyone since 1997.
In March of 2014, four years after his last death sentence, Guzek’s attorneys filed a nearly 900-page brief raising 87 “assignments of error” – all but 13 of which the high court summarily rejected without discussion in Friday’s 31-page ruling, its first to uphold a death sentence imposed on Guzek.
The two categories of claims the court rejected included the requirement that Guzek wear a “stun belt” during the latest remanded death penalty proceedings and that the trial court gave improper instructions to the jury on how to consider Guzek’s in-court statement.
Guzek had claimed an alibi – that he was at home when the murders occurred – and while that defense was used at the original trial in 1988, using it in later proceedings became a point of contention. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the defense could not be used for retrial.
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis is the former Deschutes County prosecutor who handled the last three sentencing trials and would again have been special prosecutor if a retrial was ordered.
He told NewsChannel 21 that Friday’s ruling ends the automatic appeals in state court – but does not mean Guzek has run out of appeals. However, courts that receive any future appeals would have the discretion of deciding whether to hear them or not.
As a result, “This (ruling) is very gratifying for me and the Houser family – I spoke to one of them this morning,” Marquis said.
“I would never use the word ‘closure' – it’s a stupid word – but there is some degree of finality with the decision,” the prosecutor said. “I probably will never appear with Randy Lee Guzek in court again, which makes me very happy.”
Marquis noted that over the past quarter-century, "48 Deschutes County jurors have said he deserves the death penalty. All had to say yes – if one said no, he wouldn’t be on death row.”
In fact, if the death penalty was overturned in some formal fashion, Guzek might have been eligible for parole, as the “true life” sentence without possibility of parole was not an option at the time of his original conviction.
Five years ago, at his last death penalty sentencing trial in Bend, Guzek wrote a five-page brief that rejected the judge’s request that he let jurors consider the option of “true life,” Marquis said.
Marquis said “a lot of the credit” for the eventual successful outcome should go to the original Bend murder trial prosecutor, Ron Brown – now his chief deputy DA in Astoria. He also credited state Assistant Attorney General Timothy Sylvester, who argued the most recent case on the state’s behalf.
On the stun belt matter, Marquis noted that the issue of restraints is a “Catch-22 for those in the system."
"Someone in a convicted murder case can’t wear visible shackles – that’s clearly against constitutional law," Marquis said. "This belt, which has gotten smaller and smaller – and now is basically a wrist band – is extremely humane and has ever been activated in the 20 years used in Oregon. I even offered to have the damn thing put on me and be shocked, to show it’s not dangerous.”
Marquis noted Guzek's "allocution" is an in-court statement by the defendant to the jury that is not under oath or subject to cross-examination, "and it's not really evidence." He said the court basically found what he was allowed to do did not violate state law or the Constitution, and upheld the jury instructions given by the judge (visiting, now-retired Judge Jack Billings of Eugene).
Guzek still could bring “collateral appeals” in the federal court system -- something Marquis said he fully expects -- or a “post-conviction relief” case in state court, claiming his constitutional rights were violated.
“It’s never completely, fully over until he dies of natural causes, is executed or runs out of appeals, or instructs his lawyers, as in the Timothy McVey case, not to continue appeals,” Marquis said. From what I’ve learned in the 20 years I’ve spent on the Guzek case, I’d be astonished if he waived any appeals at all.”
But in future appeals, “the arguments are much more legal ones, and not sufficiency of the evidence,” he said.
Guzek, now in his mid-40s, has at this point been on Oregon’s death row longer than anyone else, said Marquis, who has argued a strident defense of the death penalty in books and in debates from the University of Oregon to the European Parliament.
The death penalty issue remains highly political, with former Gov. John Kitzhaber stopping executions four years ago and current Gov. Kate Brown extending that moratorium, for now as she works with a small group of advisers to decide what stance to take on the matter.
Marquis said numerous polls have shown a strong majority of Oregonians support the death penalty.
“This is a sanction rarely sought, rarely imposed – that’s the way it should be," he said.